Anticipating the infiltration of hip-hop culture at Saturday’s Ultra electronic music festival, a circle of break-dancers joined the audience at the Coolworld stage, showing off supple movements to old school beats before the events’ sole rap act took the stage.
The act consisted of extended members from the West Coast crew known as Hieroglyphics, who were unsurprisingly and unfairly billed around member Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s association with the successful side project, Gorillaz. Del and his entourage came clean for an alternative performance that breached conventional rhyming and lyricism.
“We get to be the ambassadors of hip-hop for the event and that’s cool as long as people feel what we do,” said Bukue1, Del’s road manager and part time MC.
Bukue1 appeared first to hype up the audience, though people were clearly not convinced. Sporting dreads and labeling himself as the “skateboarding, graf-writing, lyricist,” he paced stage performing Black Star’s Definition. He forced on with some harder themed songs and a reggae tune, until Del’s voice dropped in the background along an eerie, melodic beat. The crowd, perhaps still awaiting Gorillaz goofy cartoon personalities, got a little more animated as Del’s funky, cerebral rhymes blared smoothly from the speakers.
As Bukue1 moved to the turntables and spun a familiar beat, Del appeared with KU, both equipped with backpacks, ripping into some of his older hits, including Mistadobalina. Despite technical difficulties with the microphones, both artists carried out their performances integrally as psychedelic visuals accompanied the songs on two big screens.
“I’m a little disappointed that there isn’t more hip-hop at the event since hip-hop culture is somewhat associated with electronic music,” KU said.
For avid hip-hop fans, the performance was an unexpected disappointment because the performances were brief. However, members of the crowd were given a positive and innovative example of rap’s broad musicianship in an era where glamour reigns supreme.
“There’s nothing wrong with going mainstream and making party songs all the time,” explained KU, who is originally from the Bronx. “I mean, back in the day, people were just presenting at block parties and talking about how fly they were. Lyrics weren’t that deep or anything.”
Many advocates of hip-hop advancement see the genre as a cultural movement rooting from poetic verses, independent thinking and political activism, currently gasping for airtime in a polluted ocean of glitz and materialism. Some members of the Hieroglyphics family see it with a slightly more neutral balance.
“That’s true, but art is art and it’s expressed in different ways,” KU said. “Busta Rhymes raps about money and parties too, but he’s still got talent. A Tribe Called Quest and N.W.A. had two different messages, but both were still good.”
Del, oddly the cousin of rap mogul Ice Cube, recently returned from Europe and has been spending a lot of time in the studios, working on new productions and collaborations. He is known for staying within the subversive circles of the hip-hop world and producing experimental works, as well as lending his rhymes to Dan the Automator’s aforementioned Gorillaz creation. Nonetheless, he doesn’t believe in being labeled as an “underground” artist.
“There isn’t any underground,” Del said. Either people listen to your music or not.”
“And going mainstream isn’t a wrong direction,” he added. “People are just doing what they want to do. Artists put themselves under that ‘underground’ umbrella and then don’t find any outlet and that’s their problem.”
Right now, he’s studying music and familiarizing himself with his roots and said that he is learning more about “the black music experience.” He wants to make money through his music, but that’s not his prerogative. For him, music is more about a journey of self-discovery.
“I can play a lot of different instruments and hardly even need to do any more sampling,” said Del. “I want to be part of a wave of innovators and if people enjoy my work, I’ll be making money anyway. It’s about doing what you like and how you want to do it. As long as artists stay focused on how they want to make their music, then it’s all good.”